Can Apple live up to Apple’s privacy ads?

The thing that convulsed the internet for much of yesterday was this Reuters report that Apple decided against throwing away its keys to users’ encrypted iCloud backups after the FBI complained about encryption.

The word “after” does a lot of work in that formulation — it reads as though it’s meant to be about cause but might just simply be about chronology. Reuters itself didn’t come out and say that Apple chose to retain the ability to unlock your iCloud backups because it was worried about the FBI freaking out if it locked them down, but didn’t not not say that either. One source told the outlet that “Apple didn’t want to poke the bear,” the bear being the FBI.

The news isn’t that the iCloud loophole exists — we’ve always known that. If Reuters’ reporting is correct (and I have no reason to doubt it), the news is Apple’s rare about-face on its march to protect your data.

It’s caused a stir because the larger context is that the US Attorney General is accusing Apple of refusing to help with FBI investigations, a claim Apple strenuously denies. But inside that denial is also the awkward fact that Apple has access to that data in the first place via the iCloud loophole.

Apple set itself up as the paragon of privacy over the past year. I’d argue that Apple’s own rhetoric around privacy and security meant that anything less than perfectly private and secure data would be seen as a failure. And friends: there is no such thing as perfectly private and secure data.

To be clear, Apple really is doing a lot to try to limit the collection and spread of your data — that’s one of the core issues in the big Browser War I wrote about last week. It also has been way out ahead of the rest of big tech when it comes to on-device encryption. Other big tech companies should be doing more to follow Apple’s example when it comes to device encryption and tracking. Credit where due.

Speaking of credit where due — and I’m embarrassed to say I forgot about this until John Gruber mentioned it — Google offers full backup encryption that it can’t access on its servers for newer Android phones. (If only it would offer a more secure default messaging experience!)

Anyway, this whole story was all anybody in tech was talking about yesterday (until the Bezos phone hack story hit. Like I said, there’s a lot going on!). My favorite tweet on the whole fight comes from Joe Cieplinski, who puts the whole debate into exactly the right context:

I love that now the non-tech world thinks Apple is aiding terrorists, and the tech world is simultaneously thinking Apple is selling us out to the FBI. … Gotta love the complete absence of reason in our discourse these days.

I don’t know if there is a complete absence of reason, but the truth is that data privacy and encryption is Really Actually Quite Complicated. As much a we’d like it to be a simple binary choice between secure and not, the truth is that security is a spectrum. You make a trade-off every time you choose a password you have a ghost of a chance of remembering. Apple makes a trade-off when it chooses to keep the decryption key for iCloud backups.

The last time Tim Cook spoke directly to this issue that I’m aware of, he said Apple kept the keys for users who forget their passwords. That’s a legitimate use case, and whether you believe that to be the main reason or not is between you and your general level of trust in Apple and in big tech generally.

This debate has been a long time coming, by the way. It was already one of those things that tech people sort of knew but didn’t think much about when Walt Mossberg wrote about the “iCloud loophole” in 2016 in his column on The Verge. It was a vaguely troubling thing back in 2016. Now in 2020, it’s a much bigger story because Apple itself made it the story of the iPhone all of last year.

When you put up a giant billboard at the biggest consumer electronics show in America touting that “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone,” as Apple did at CES in 2019, people tend to want to see you live up to it. When you follow it up with a “Privacy matters” ad in May, people expect you to live up to it. The heat on this topic is high in large part because Apple’s own rhetoric has been so vociferous.

This might sound like I’m railing against Apple for hypocrisy. I am not — yet. As I mentioned, data security is a spectrum and it’s difficult to understand how everything works in the first place. If I’m unhappy with Apple for anything, it’s for talking about data security and privacy in such absolutist terms.

And I get the impetus! Putting up a billboard that reads “Every security and privacy decision involves trade-offs and we are making the best choices we can in that regard without locking your phone down so much you can barely use it” isn’t going to sell a lot of phones. That’s not how marketing works.

What’s next? I expect a lot of hunkering down from Apple (it hasn’t responded to our request for comment, for example). I don’t know how long it can simply stay silent, however. The FBI and the Attorney General are definitely going to keep pushing. I doubt Apple’s big tech competitors will make hay about it in the way Apple itself has, but that doesn’t mean Apple’s users won’t demand better.

Apple’s choices for iCloud backups involve trade-offs that reasonable people can argue about. I don’t know that I agree with them (in fact I don’t think I do), but it would be nice to have an open, nuanced discussion about them. The problem is that, as Cieplinski tweeted, nuance and reason are in pretty short supply when it comes to discussions about encryption.

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